On Wednesday, Pat Summitt stepped down as head coach at the University of Tennessee at the age of 59, less than a year after being diagnosed with early onset dementia. Comcast SportsNet's Carolyn Manno has a personal reflection of the woman who shaped the face of modern women's collegiate basketball.
By Carolyn Manno
Let's start with the name, Summitt, a fitting one for a woman who, for over the last 38 years as the head coach and mastermind behind the groundbreaking University of Tennessee women's basketball program, has worked tirelessly to reach the pinnacle of the collegiate coaching landscape.
The first and only time I saw Pat Summitt in person started around 2 p.m. on Saturday, January 5, 2008. I was working as a reporter and camera (wo)man in South Bend, Indiana. Candace Parker and the Lady Vols were in town to play the 14th-ranked Fighting Irish. As the game tipped off, in front of the fourth sellout crowd in the history of Notre Dame women's basketball, I watched Summitt's piercing blue eyes meticulously follow her players as they moved from one baseline to the other. Through the safety of my camera lens, I zoomed closer to her face during a timeout before halftime. Tennessee had used a 22-2 run midway through the first half to open a 30-10 lead. Summitt's expression in the huddle suggested they were the ones down 20.
Following her 19th straight win over the Irish -- who should have lost by TKO minutes into the second half -- Summitt made her way to the press room.
As she sat down at the table in front of me, her presence was so intimidating that I felt a sudden urge to ease out the door to the safety of my car. But my pangs of anxiety subsided when she started speaking. For as ferocious as she was on the court, Summitt was as genuine and graceful off of it. In her southern drawl, she warmly answered questions and complimented the efforts of the team she had never lost to -- and had been beating by an average margin of 23 points.
I was only in her presence for a day, and really only for a few minutes. But I can understand why the majority of the 161 women who have played for her, and graduated under her, sing her praises.
In nearly four decades, Pat Summitt never had a season with a losing record. As great a coach as she was, though, those who know her the best say her crowning achievement is her 21-year-old son Tyler, who grew up following his mother around the basketball court that now bears her name.
Former players remember carting Tyler around on their shoulders after winning national titles. Now it is his 59-year-old mother who will need to borrow his shoulder to lean on, as she continues to battle an opponent far tougher than any she's ever faced.
"The thing my mom always taught me is to put the team before yourself. She really felt like this was the best thing for the Lady Vol program," Tyler said at his mother's retirement press conference Thursday -- the same day he officially accepted his first job. After graduating next month, Tyler Summitt will become an assistant coach with the Marquette women's basketball team.
A celebratory day instead felt ruthlessly ironic.
Early-onset Alzheimer's is the most savage of thieves. It will mercilessly pillage Summitt's brain without rest until it has stolen virtually every memory that has been engrained there over a 38-year head coaching career . . . and a lifetime.
Eventually, the seven-time National Coach of the year will likely not be able to remember a single championship.
She may not be able to recall even one of her 1,098 wins.
Or even her son's name.
Alzheimer's winning percentage is a perfect 1.000.
But the thousands who have called her an influence, the hundreds who have called her a coach, and the one who still calls her "Mom" will never forget her.
"It has been a privilege," the Hall of Famer said Thursday while seated behind a press conference microphone to announce her retirement from the game she revolutionized.
The privilege, Coach, has been ours.